Growing in tough times

March 21, 2012
Stan Goff
Issue 5

There’s plenty of competition out there, and the folks at Ottawa Dental Laboratory are well aware of it. They know plenty of cases are being sent overseas and many dentists are looking to trim costs in any way possible.

There’s plenty of competition out there, and the folks at Ottawa Dental Laboratory are well aware of it. They know plenty of cases are being sent overseas and many dentists are looking to trim costs in any way possible.

Yet the lab group, based out of Ottawa, Ill.-about 90 miles southwest of Chicago-is expanding its operations and watching its business grow. Instead of cutting staff and playing things safe, the business recently acquired Essex Dental Laboratory in Lockport, Ill., and recently opened its Chicago branch of Ottawa Dental Laboratory of Chicago.

A lot of things factor into the company’s success, but good old-fashioned customer service-along with the addition of some of today’s best new technologies-is going a long way toward the lab’s success.

“That’s precisely the message,” General Manager Dave Bernholdt said when asked about Ottawa’s growth. “If there’s anything about what we think is the burgeoning success of Ottawa is that we’re being proactive in a very difficult time and investing money-when most labs are not-into our future, for our future. We’re reaching out to more customers, offering more services and getting closer to the market if you will.”

Expansion into Chicago has helped a lot. So has the acquisition of Essex, along with that two very talented technicians and a strong reputation for great denture services. But at the end of the day, the 73-year-old, family-run business puts its hat on its customer service and its timely, consistent work.

“There are thousands of dentists in the city. We felt we could service better and actually capture new business being in the downtown environment and that’s why we did that,” Bernholdt said. “Now, at all three locations we are providing all kinds of great denture work as well as services that doctors would be looking for including repairs and flippers and things that are needed quickly.
  
“That gives us a touch with these doctors which then, if they enjoy the experience, leads to them being more prone to send more work and that’s exactly what’s happening.
Chicago is booming with new accounts going in the door on a regular basis.”

Uncommon growth

The combination of fast, quality work along with the personal approach unavailable from overseas labs has helped Ottawa thrive. Yet, the business’ growth is still unusual in these rocky economic times.

“It’s kind of tough in these times because I talk to so many friends of mine who either own labs or work in labs that are just struggling,” Bernholdt said. “Everybody says what’s No. 1 is quality and consistency. We’re measuring up and staying ahead and actually growing. We know there’s all kinds of threats from overseas and that much work is going over there and that it’s price oriented, but we seem to be okay. Holding our own so to speak.”

Investing in technology and expansion seems to have been a wise choice for Ottawa, but it’s not always an easy call to make.

“I think you can equate it to like when everybody’s selling stocks you should be buying stocks,” Bernholdt said. “When things are really looking the bleakest and everything looks gloom and doom, that’s when you should be jumping in. Shop for bargains.”

What’s clicking?

Ottawa Dental Labs has always put an extra emphasis on details to make sure the dentist client and patient get the best possible restorations.

“Providing a positive customer experience,” said Megan Keeney, Director of Sales & Marketing. “We’re confident that we produce a high-quality, consistent product, but there’s more to the experience. We believe in getting to know our customers.”

Ottawa Dental Lab uses a tracking system to make sure it stays on top of every case, and also on every relationship.

“We’re dedicated to our CRM (Customer Relationship Management),” she said. “It enables us to track insightful customer interactions so that any one of us can service their inquiries effectively and efficiently. In doing so, we’re providing a personalized experience with each customer we interact with. In addition to our CRM tool, we take great pride in offering personalized service with our team of drivers. This team has daily face-to-face interactions with our customers and alleviates the hassle of them needing to make arrangements with common couriers to expedite packages.”

Keeney adds that Ottawa’s customers place a high value on this service because they know they can rely on the driver to be at their office at or around the same time on a daily basis.

“We believe a lack of quality and consistency is the biggest reason why dentists get discouraged with their labs,” Keeney said. “We invested in the PTC training program many years ago and remain committed to it today. We’re unique in that we have a full-time Director of Training and Education on staff. Vicki Stacy, CDT, DTE, embraced the PTC concept, which allows us to train and cross-train our technicians to ensure we’re delivering what the customers expect, time after time. This is one of the factors that have allowed us to grow during these challenging economic times. We’re consistently delivering a quality product to our customers.”

Bernholdt adds that each Ottawa facility is equipped with the necessary equipment to assist in getting accurate shades, and digital impression taking systems are helping its dentist clients deliver precise impressions that can greatly reduce the number of retakes.

“In each location we have shade take sites and the ability to do good picture taking and shade taking so we can strive to get the shades on the money,” he said. “Also, you can imagine how many calls that we get where someone needs something rather quickly so we try to accommodate that. The customer service orientation is very, very high.”

Using technology

“We’re committed to the never-ending exploration of technological advancements. They’ve had and will continue to have an impact on our industry in terms of being able to meet the needs of dentists and their patients,” Keeney said.

Similar to its strategy to expand even during a sluggish economy, Ottawa labs have always been at the forefront of bringing on new technologies.

“We’ve never been a lab to sit back and wait for the popular vote’s decision regarding dental technology and equipment,” Keeney said. “We do our research, which can be a massive undertaking. We’ve proven that it takes a combination of thorough research as well as relationships built on trust and respect with our manufacturing partners before finalizing any decisions. To date we regret no decisions we’ve made regarding investments in technology.”

According to Bernholdt, digital impression taking devices have already had a big impact on the industry and he expects it to continue.

“We do see more dentists involved in digital impression taking and we’ve experienced that first hand because we’re working with a couple systems,” Bernholdt said. “They have proven to be quite successful in helping the dentist take a more accurate impression which leads to better work and less remakes.”

Ottawa has offered rebate plans for about a year that helps dentists cover their impression taking costs in exchange for caseloads. “Dentists feel it’s a great technology and patient comfort is tremendous,” Bernholdt said. “We’re working with digital impression taking and we see that as the future of dentistry.

“Within the past few years, we’ve added many new technologies from companies including Sirona, 3M ESPE, Straumann, Nobel Biocare, BioHorizons, and Cadent, just to name a few,” Bernholdt added. “Investing in their technologies has enabled us to offer broad range of products as we expand our customer base through their networks.”

Family affair

The Ottawa Dental Laboratory has ventured into its 73rd year of serving the dental community. The lab was founded by Lucien “Tony” Caruso in 1937. Tony’s philosophy from day one was to “treat every case as though it were for your mother” which became the foundation for his success. Tony’s eldest son, Luke, Jr. has been the driving force behind the lab’s success. He’s been committed to remaining a leader in the dental lab industry as the company continues to evolve with continued investment in employee training as well as the adoption of new materials and technology.

Like the father before him, Luke, Jr. has mentored his sons, Luke, III and Jim, in the dental laboratory business. The third generation of the Caruso family is active in driving the future. Luke, III manages the CAD/CAM technology and the porcelain team. Jim is the business manager and oversees many of the operational functions of all three laboratories.

Luke Caruso III expects the growing implant field to help give the labs a boost in the near future.

“I really feel as though implant manufacturers will be a big driver in the future development of dental software,” he said. “I can see more guided surgeries being conducted to protect dentists from exposure to possible risks with their patients. The dental laboratories will be fabricating more surgical guides from CT scans, which will be a platform into designing larger, multidisciplinary cases.

“We also see digital impression systems incorporating implants into their software as well. The challenge will be maintaining the same level of control and accuracy throughout the digital process,” said Luke Caruso, III, Porcelain Department Manager.